Front cover of That Smell
Paul Starkey
reviews

That Smell and Notes from Prison

by Sonallah Ibrahim

translated by Robyn Creswell

New Directions, New York, 2013. Pbk, 120 pp, $15.95, £11.99. ISBN 978 0 8112 2036 1

Capturing the spirit

 

With so much worthwhile Arabic literature remaining untranslated, “retranslations” of Arabic novels usually strike one as something of a luxury. So the publication of a new translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s slim volume, Tilka al-Ra’iha, which first appeared in Arabic in 1966 before being quickly confiscated, comes as rather a shock. Both Ibrahim’s work itself, which is widely regarded as heralding the arrival of the so-called ‘Generation of the Sixties’, and Denys Johnson-Davies’s original English translation (The Smell of It And Other Stories, originally published in 1971), are seminal works in their respective fields, and the complex publishing history of the work – the English translation actually appeared before the full text of the Arabic became generally available – bears witness to the tortuous constraints of censorship that Egyptian writers of the day (and later) have had to grapple with. In retrospect, the work has been seen both as foreshadowing the humiliation of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War and as ushering in a new mood in modern Arabic writing,

Why, then, this new translation? In his lively and thought-provoking introduction, Robyn Creswell explains that he finds Denys Johnson-Davies’s original translation (now out of print) too “elegant”, and that it fails to convey the deliberately bald and “aggressively unliterary” style of the original. In Johnson-Davies’s version, Creswell explains: “Ibrahim’s lower-middle-class characters speak a plummy version of English and the unbroken block of the original Arabic text – a layout that fits the stream-of-consciousness narrative – is transformed into tidy paragraphs and indented dialogue.” Creswell’s version aims to redress this balance and recapture something of the spirit and mood of Ibrahim’s original Arabic, the deliberately sparse and unadorned style of which reflects the monotony of his Cairo protagonist’s life.

I have to confess that I personally have never found Denys Johnson-Davies’s “plummy English” any more of a hindrance to enjoyment than the incongruous fusha spoken by many of Ibrahim’s (and other Arab authors’) characters. Be that as it may, however, there is no doubt that Creswell has produced an effective translation, which successfully captures the spirit of Ibrahim’s original text – a text that clearly reflected the mood of many contemporary Egyptian intellectuals, but which also disturbed and shocked many at the time of first publication, not only for its deliberately “unliterary” use of the literary language, but also for its explicit sexual references.

In addition to his new translation of Tilka al-Ra’iha, Creswell has also included in his volume an English translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s own introduction to the 1986 Arabic version of his work; a wide-ranging introduction of his own; and an English translation of excerpts from Ibrahim’s Yawmiyyat al-Wahat (Oasis Diaries), published in Arabic in book form in 2004, and here renamed Notes from Prison. Creswell’s introduction provides the reader with useful background information, not only on the literary aspects of the work, but also on the political context, including, centrally, the ups and downs under Nasser of the Egyptian Communist Party, which has played a central part in Sonallah Ibrahim’s life and career as a writer.

Perhaps even more valuable and revealing, however, are the excerpts from Yawmiyyat al-Wahat, written between 1962 and 1964, during the last two years of Ibrahim’s imprisonment for political reasons. Originally written as secret notebooks and subsequently transferred to Turkish Bafra-brand cigarette papers to be smuggled out of prison, these diaries are inevitably somewhat disjointed, but they serve both as a powerful indicator of the centrality of literature in Sonallah Ibrahim’s life and as a commentary on the debates about realism that remained a live issue for Egyptian writers of the day.

For this volume Creswell has selected passages amounting to roughly one fifth of the full Arabic publication that he considers most relevant to the reading of Tilka al-Ra’iha; for many readers, they will probably whet the appetite for more.

Robyn Creswell and New Directions are to be congratulated for making this new material available to English readers, and for reviving interest in Sonallah Ibrahim’s ground-breaking work though this new translation.

 

Paul Starkey’s book, Sun’ Allah Ibrahim: Rebel with a Pen, is due to be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2014.

 

Published in Banipal 47 – Fiction from Kuwait

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